All art is collaboration, coincidence, kismet

Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.

The Student Who Shot My Other Student

He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.

I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.

I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.

I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.

The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.

Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.

In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.

Return to Sender

Remember when you thought going to bed was the best time of day, the way you curled your body into the curve of his, your torsos and legs a pair of nesting commas, his arms holding you like the string on a present, something to both secure and decorate your wrapping?

Remember when you thought that finding the love of your life meant no more choices to make, that it would last until death parted you from it, biology’s ruthlessness the only unbreachable barrier?

Remember the day your father told you that if a ship were sinking and he had to choose between saving your mother or saving you, he would choose her? Remember nodding, yes, of course, of course that would only be right, even as you imagined your little-girl arms flailing for someone to hold onto?

Remember your great-uncle Shorty, who came back broken from the war and never mended, how one time he pointed at you from his chair in his mother’s dark living room, saying nothing, pipe dangling, and how you ran to your mother in the kitchen and hid your face in the space between her legs? Remember how, later, you said it felt as if he were claiming or marking you as one of his kind?

Remember the space between your legs, how important it seemed to fill it, that tunnel a conduit to your hollow core, the empty package of you?

Remember the boy who drank too much one night and fell down the stairs and how for a while afterward said the kind of things we think but don’t say, and how he told the boyfriend who would become your first husband that you were damaged? Remember after the divorce, how you would think that he had been right?

Remember that package you got once in the mail, how its box was so tattered and mashed that you were sure its contents must be broken, that the whole thing would have to be returned?

Remember how you were wrong?

 

*********************

Another exercise from the poetry group mentioned here. Guess I’m working on some things.

The Morning I Notice My Old Wedding Ring

Because it was there to notice in the cardboard box where I once put it, the box in which I keep all my earrings

(because I’m not a jewelry person, the kind of woman who owns enough jewelry to warrant a proper box), the box I keep meaning to go through and clean out

Because so many of the earrings are missing mates that aren’t going to reappear, no matter how much I once loved them–that funky teardrop turquoise one, my birthstone; or the expensive gold hoop my parents gave me; or that silver heart-shaped one I lost somewhere in the old house, the one I lived in with the man I didn’t marry–and

Because for some reason I notice it this morning, when it’s been there so long that I usually don’t, and

Because I am in a place where, it seems, so many things must be tested, I stop to try it on my finger to find that it no longer fits, and then I wonder

Why I keep it and all the earrings I will never wear again, and

Why I never quite know what to do with things that no longer fit, and

Why I am not the kind of woman who would ever have an asymmetrical number of piercings, or who might wear a mis-matched pair, and

Why I am the kind of woman who hangs onto things she loves past their point of usefulness, and

Why I can’t part with a wedding ring even though the circle has been broken, and

Because I don’t have any of the answers, and

Because perhaps some day my children might want this piece of metal bent into the shape my finger once was, this little glittering rock to tell them that they came from something that mattered enough for their mother to hold onto an emblem of it,

I put it–all of it, the ring and the questions and the becauses–back into the box and go on with my day, knowing it will not be one in which I discard anything

Just because.

***************

I’ve never been able to commit to NaNoWriMo (or any other WriMo that requires doing a prodigious amount of writing every day in the month of November), but this year I did decide to join an online poetry writing group that runs Nov. 1-30, led by Jena Schwartz. This writing (poem?) came from one of the prompts Jena provided to the group this week. I have decided that for me, writing might be not unlike exercise:  I’d like to think I can just go it alone, but I probably can’t. There’s a synergy that comes from reading others’ words and talking about their words that I can’t manufacture on my own, a force that energizes whatever it is that makes me want to find my own. And, like exercise, there is a value in just showing up, putting yourself out there and doing the work, even if it’s not a contest for a prize. That’s what publishing this piece here is for me. I appreciate whatever it is that comes from being part of this group that made me stop and think about why I noticed my old ring and what it means that I still have it–which makes this, in some ways, also like the kind of daily gratitude practice some take on for the month of November. It’s been a well-spent $30.00.

 

In the middle of the beginning of the end

It is the first week of November.
The roses are blooming, still.

The petals blush and bloom outside the window where I sleep, and they are lovely in a gangly, over-grown way, but I am starting to wonder if pink is the color of doom, a gentle warning from a planet warming.

I remember a childhood summer day, Marie Osmond crooning on the radio about paper roses while I dug rivers and tunnels in my grandparents’ garden. Summer was mild sun and dusky July raspberries and watermelon with seeds and Puget Sound water so cold it almost made your teeth chatter just to look at it. Today I look out the window to the roses and wonder if I will ever have grandchildren who will know such summer days, or if instead I will have grandchildren who look forward to the brambly November blooms of feral roses. (Will I have grandchildren?)

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s always the end of the world as we know it.

In the first week of November I spend a Sunday afternoon at the library, listening to a poet I know talk about the role of poetry in times such as these. On this last Sunday before the election that will be the end of one thing and the beginning of something else, I sit in a room and listen to the words of a poet who first came into my life 27 years ago, right before the first time the life I was living ended and I had to find my way to a new one, and who appeared again at a later time when another life was ending. Perhaps that is why I have come to listen to what he might tell me today. Perhaps I am looking for the kind of support his words offered through those other transitions.

I want to enter into his words, but I cannot. The room is filled with gray hair and white skin, and we are sitting in the open space at the top of three flights of marble stairs, and while part of me fills with something like awe for our humanity and faith in such things as poetry and libraries, another part of me wonders if we are all fiddling away this fall afternoon while our Rome burns, if we should be out knocking on doors and sounding the alarm and telling everyone we know to vote, vote, vote instead of listening to the gentle poet’s gentle words about writing and living and folk songs.  I doze off while sitting up, his words and music (because yes, there is music–guitar, not fiddle) more lullaby than anything else.

I wake up to these words, with these words:  “Poetry is a luxury that could save your life. So maybe it can save your country.”

I am a poet.
I don’t write poetry any more.

He tells us that poets don’t have to be great writers. They have to be great observers, able to catch the poems as they wander by.

How can poetry be both luxury and necessity? How can roses bloom in the season when flowers are supposed to die?

The first week in November I am reading Anne Lamott,* who tells me that all truth is paradox “and this turns out to be reason for hope.” She tells me,

“…paradox is an invitation to go deeper into life, to see a bigger screen instead of the nice, safe lower left quadrant where you see work, home, and the country. Try a wider reality, through curiosity, awareness, and breath. Try actually being here.”

I put things out in the world, things that feel important for everyone to know: the caravan is a humanitarian crisis; the president lies; our kids don’t have librarians to teach them how to find sources of truth. Only a few people seem to reach out to catch them, these little nuggets of doom I offer the way some people offer prayer. “You think that if you just explain everything clearly enough, other people will understand and do the right thing,” a friend tells me in a conversation about how I am naive.

In the first week of November it is the mundane things I share that friends latch on to: a Halloween candy debacle, my clogged plumbing, my acceptance of leggings as pants. Maybe this is more fiddling, but I don’t think so. Maybe it is a kind of grabbing for life rings to keep us afloat in waters we don’t really know how to swim. We have a debate about leggings that is also about norms and appropriateness and oppression (OK, so I’m the only one who brought up oppression), and we all talk about how our ideas about leggings have evolved. For my daughter and her friends, this is a non-issue, a ridiculous conversation. For them, leggings have always been pants. That’s just how it is. Perhaps roses blooming in November will just be how it is for them, too.

The world is ending, as it always has, always will, and the most improbable things are getting me through it. My old, toothless, and increasingly threadbare dogs. Characters in books I haven’t read in decades (Francie Nolan and Harriet M. Welsch and Ole Golly.) German pancakes in a neighborhood bakery that fills with people and sunshine and sugar on weekend mornings. Friends who live half a continent away, people I’ve never met in real life but who give me comfort and laughter, a conduit to joy not possible in the world I was born into. One of them writes to me in the first week of November,

“Nostalgia kills me. Either I dwell on negatives I can’t change or I miss the positives that are gone and not coming back. So what works is focusing on the present…. The moment is right where I belong.”

And later in the first week in November, at the end of a long day, I walk out of school to a nearly empty parking lot and am struck by a wonder of red leaves swirling to the ground in the golden light of a sun about to set. I am weary and frustrated and going home to a house empty of anyone but those tired dogs, but in that moment I breathe in the joy of those leaves, that light, and it becomes something palpable, a good weight in the pit of my stomach. I share this moment later with my friend who belongs in the moment, though we may never share moments through anything other than code that represents them, and only after the moments have passed.

This moment in time is full of paradox, endings that are beginnings and beginnings that are endings. All moments in time are.

Each night I go to sleep alone next to the window next to the roses and remember when I didn’t sleep alone. My life isn’t what I thought it would be, what I want it to be.
I love my life.

The roses, they are breaking me.
The roses, with their common, uncontrollable beauty, they are saving me.

At the reading, after I wake up, a woman sitting behind me asks a question. I recognize her voice, though I haven’t heard it in nearly 10 years. She is the friend of a friend I once had, another poet whose words helped save me when I needed saving. How I have missed Sarah, miss Sarah still, will always miss Sarah, who died too soon, and our friendship that died with her before it had a chance to fully bloom. How I sometimes miss that life I was living when she was my friend and her friend was someone I knew, a life filled with mothering and teaching and writing poetry and living on a mountain where the seasons behaved as I expected them to. How grateful I am for the missing.

Before the reading ends and the poet puts his guitar away, I pull out my yellow pad of paper and begin writing these words. I don’t talk to the poet who gave the reading or the one who asked the question, but in writing I feel connected to them just the same, and grateful for the gifts they are giving me, these words among them. After I capture all the poetry I can in prose, I walk down the three flights of steps and outside the library, where I take photos of the leaves and the light before getting in my car and heading home to my dogs and my solitude and my roses.

I don’t really know anything.
I know more than I ever have.

*From Almost Everything:  Notes on Hope, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Requiem

My grandfather died in 2003, and if it were true that time heals all wounds his death is one I should be long recovered from, but I’m not. The missing waxes and wanes, but it is never entirely absent. This month, this year, I have missed him more than at any time since he left us.

We seem to be having quite a conversation about men recently, and perhaps that is part of why I am missing him. He was one of the best men I’ve known. My grandfather was, in many ways, a guy’s guy. I’ve seen photos of the strong young man he once was, and I know there was some turbulence in his youth. I know he had no trouble holding his own, at any time in his life. He was a tough man who spent his life doing physical labor, but he was also a gentle man who wrote poems to his grand-daughter:

Because his father, an immigrant from Germany, died in a construction accident when my grandfather was still a teen-ager, he was not able to pursue a formal education as he would have liked to. Instead, he became a machinist and welder and served our country working in the Bremerton shipyards during the second world war. Later, he owned his own small business, Ott’s Welding and Machine Works. He was a lifelong Republican and a devout Catholic. He was also the person who taught me about the injustices committed upon native people and black Americans. He hated Hitler and the tactics he’d used to gain and keep power. One of his favorite sayings was, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This, during an era of so much protest against actions with which he likely agreed.

He also taught me much about how men should treat girls and women. I remember only one time in which his anger was directed at me. I made a face at the asparagus my grandmother had made for dinner, and both the words and tone of his rebuke were sharp. Later, he apologized for the sharpness and explained what had made him angry. He did not want to see my grandmother’s work disrespected. He adored her and viewed her as his partner in their business and home. They were always a team.

As I became a young adult and developed my own political views, we both became aware that mine were different from his. That never changed our relationship. We knew that despite our different ideas about how to achieve the kind of America we wanted, what we wanted was the same: a country with equal opportunities for everyone, in which who you are matters less than what you do. He taught me that it is important to play by the rules and to play fair. To be honorable and to have integrity. He never suggested, in words or actions, that I mattered less than anyone else because I’m female, or that any person mattered less than another because of their skin color. Those were not his political values, they were his human values, and he imparted them to me.

I know that many of the ideas and beliefs I had for decades about what our country is and how it works were, at best, incomplete.  I know there are things he never saw or knew about what has created and denied opportunities for all of us, but that doesn’t change the goodness he embodied. I miss him, and I miss living in a country where I felt confident that most people wanted those same things for everyone that both he and I wanted for them. Where I believed that our systems were strong enough to protect us from those who did not.

I know that my grief and sadness and feelings of loss for the man my grandfather was are all mixed up with those I have about losing the beliefs I once had about my country. The country he taught me to believe in because he thought it was what I know he was:  decent, fair, just, humane. What I wouldn’t give to be able to talk with him again, and to feel about all of my countrymen what I once felt about and for them. To believe in them–in us–the way I still believe in him and what he stood for.

In the early autumn of your life

Sometimes you think you really know a plant, know a season, and then you discover that maybe you’ve been mistaken. Maybe you don’t really know strawberries, or September at all. Maybe there are a whole lot of things you don’t know.

One early fall evening that still feels like summer, almost, you’ll think about how all of the seasons pass too quickly for you, now. You’ll think about how, at the end of each one for the past few years, you realize that it’s ending and wish you’d done more, somehow, to hold onto it. To relish it. To savor it. And so, instead of doing the dishes or paying the bills right after dinner, you’ll head out the front door with your garden clippers to cut a bouquet of roses–knowing that, too soon, their blooms will cease and the yard after dinner will be dark and windy.

That is when, poking around your strawberry plants to get a closer look at the first reddening of their leaves, which reminds you of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his Margaret and her grieving, you’ll see it–the fruit you never expected to harvest now:  strawberries.

This will make you catch your breath just a little, making it more of a “Windhover” moment than a Margaret one, because for you, strawberries are June. They are summer. They are warm and sweet as the anticipation of long days and hot blooms and languid afternoons. These berries? Here? Now? They are as wondrous and doomed as Hopkins’s birds. You don’t know what to make of them. Are they some sign from the universe or your Muse, a metaphor sent for you to discover? A weird gift courtesy of climate change? Some kind of Monsantoesque mutation? Should you eat them, or should you leave them alone?

You don’t know.

You decide you don’t need to make anything of them.

You decide that all you need to do is appreciate them. You’ve lived enough to know that not everything has to mean. Some things should just get to be. The roses under your window that keep blooming and blooming and blooming. The strawberries you couldn’t have predicted or expected. You, savoring the early autumn of your life.

 

 

Like a lifetime of paper cuts

I was 10 years old the first time I got cat-called–not that I had that name for it then.

I was in my front yard, wearing a bathing suit, playing an imaginary game with my small ceramic dogs and horses in the dirt under the fir trees that grew in the front corner of our corner lot. I really loved that bathing suit, my first two-piece. It was hot pink, and cute. I felt free in it in a way that I didn’t in a one-piece.

There was a stop sign at that corner; a car full of teen-age boys stopped and the hooting and hollering and laughing began. I don’t remember exactly what they said. What I remember is my surprise and shame. What I remember is that they said something specifically about my bathing suit, and I never felt as free in it again. What I remember is packing up my little dogs and horses and going inside to play, even though the trees’ roots created hills and valleys that they loved to run over.

In the grand scheme of hurts, this one–and all the many others of its nature that followed for years and years–was not a big deal. Maybe, especially in the moment, especially if looked at singly, it had an impact on par with a paper cut. And who is going to make a fuss about a paper cut? No one. We all get them. They sting like a mothertrucker, but they aren’t a big deal. They’re just part of how it is, with paper.

You know, it’s not like I go around feeling fearful of paper all the time. No one does. I mean, I’m an educator and a writer. I love paper. I need paper. Hard to imagine my life without paper. But then–never when I’m expecting it, usually when I’m being a little careless about something, when my mind is on something else, when I forget that paper can cut–one of those sheets slices into me. And it hurts.

A lifetime of paper cuts, though, adds up to a sum greater than its parts. Each has contributed to my understanding that cutting is something to avoid and paper is something to be careful with. It’s part of knowledge I carry so deep in my body that my caution and wariness around any technology that can sever–knives and saws and all manner of power tools–feels instinctive rather than learned.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, and like most it doesn’t hold entirely true. Men and boys are not tools, and the proclivity many have to treat girls and women as objects for their amusement are not an inherent part of their design, the way, say, being sharp around the edges is part of paper’s. I suppose if we really cared more about paper cuts, we’d change our way of making it, and maybe there is something in the way we make boys, the way we raise them, that makes some of them treat us like things and, seemingly, not even know that they are doing it. But unlike paper, men have the capacity to change themselves, even if we haven’t raised them as well as we might. They have the capacity to learn and transform.

Because they can’t experience this in the way we have and do, they will never have the capacity to truly feel how it is for us. But they do have the capacity to understand that ten year old girls should not have to pack up their toys and play inside to avoid sexual harassment. They can believe us when we tell them how pervasive it is and how it impacts us. They can take the lead in transforming our world so that we do not have to walk so carefully and vigilantly through it, always aware, at least in some way that feels instinctive, of how the sharp edges of men might at any moment slice us open.

Unpacking

Why, yes–I did move back in May. And yes,  I’m still unpacking.

I’m down to the boxes where I find the kinds of things that can gut you just a little bit, if you let them.

I have always loved this photo of my girl. There’s something in it that captures exactly who she was then and is now and, I suspect, will always be. It’s in the line of her mouth, the set of her shoulders, the directness of her gaze. And, too, in the flush of her cheeks and the tender curves of her legs, dangling because they are too short, yet, to rest on the pegs meant to support them.

Earlier today,  I wrote a long-postponed letter to the daughter of a man I loved when he and I were young, who wanted to know more about the person her deceased dad once was, and I shared tea with someone from high school who I didn’t know then but wish I had, and sun shone through the rain-splattered window we sat next to and warmed us as our talk flitted from one age we’d been to another, quickly, as if we knew we couldn’t fit nearly enough of three decades of living into a too-short hour, so later this afternoon, when I lifted the flaps of a box to find this photo that I framed nearly twenty years ago, past and present wove themselves into a sheer tapestry shot through with metallic threads of joy and grief and gratitude and regret, forming a scene in which words such as “past” and “present” have no meaning, in which everyone I love and have loved and will love were simultaneously all the ages they ever were and ever will be–and just for a fleeting moment, it was almost as if I could hold it all in my hands, tangible as actual fabric, almost as if I could put words to it that could tell the excruciatingly beautiful facts of our brief existence true.

But I couldn’t. This is the best I could do.

I’m still looking for the right place to put these things, a shelf that can hold the weight of them.

 

Dear First-Year Teacher Me,

I found your journal in a box in the garage this summer. Not your real journal, your “fake journal,” the one you wrote in at the beginning of every class so that you could model journal writing for your students. I love that you dutifully modeled all year long even though you felt it fake and doubted its value–because how else would I be able to revisit you now, 28 years later, and be able to see so clearly who you were?

In just that one short entry, I see all of you, First-Year Teacher Me: your candor, your questions, your limitations, your doubts, your pragmatism in the face of those questions and limitations and doubts. While your journal has more than one outrageous statement that I know you didn’t really mean (“freshmen should be shut up in cages until they are juniors”),  I see how much you wanted to do right by your students.

I love not just your journal entries, but also your lesson plans and lists of things to do, even as they make me kinda want to cry, seeing how seriously you took it all. Could anyone have ever been so earnest about planning for freshman cheer practices? (Yes, you could. You were. God help you. Call on socks!)

As I read these pages full of to-do lists and time logs and lesson plans and journal entries, with their stories of botched lessons, no curriculum, departmental warfare, unclear purposes, cynical colleagues, and endless meetings, I want so badly to reach back in time and give you such a hard hug. I want to tell you that, yeah, you were doing a lot of things wrong, but you were also doing a lot of things right. I want to sit you down and assure you that, no, you’re not a weak whiner–that year was hard, real hard, harder than it should have been.

Oh my god, First-Year Teacher Me, just the log you kept of your hours! (Remember how an administrator suggested you do that? So you could see where you were “wasting time”?!) No wonder you were so exhausted and cranky. No wonder that fragile baby marriage of yours didn’t survive it.

It was so strange and unsettling, to read the words of this person (you!) who is both me and not-me, and to see you laboring so hard to author the beginning of a story whose plot line is now irrevocably written. There’s no revising it now, much as I might like to. There are only the next chapters, which are in some ways as much a mystery to me now as yours were to you then.

You see, I found you during a summer in which I was surprised, again, to find myself in a place I don’t want to be. It was a summer of unpacking. Unpacking boxes. Unpacking relationships. Unpacking a home, a career, a family, a life. Back in early August, not long after I found you, I was reading Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, in which she quotes Jung–

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

–and those words pushed me, who has so often felt my life directed by things outside my control, to unpack yours. As I read and re-read them, part of me felt for you the tenderness I always feel for the young and floundering, but another part of me felt so frustrated and impatient (and if I let myself go there, close to despairing) as I listened to you, First-Year Teacher Me–because in too many ways you could also be Fifth-Year Teacher Me or Fifteenth-Year Teacher Me or Last-May Teacher Me.

As I looked back at you through the tunnel of your journal, I could hardly believe how many of the questions and struggles you wrestled with then would follow you through your whole career. Are, in fact, still with you today, 28 years later. I don’t know if you could have stood knowing that when you were 25.

I can hardly stand knowing it now–and seeing that you already had so many of the answers (or at least the beginnings of them) then. You just didn’t know you had them. You just didn’t listen to yourself. What I can see so clearly from here–what your words have made conscious for me–is that you were in a toxic situation that you endured by taking whatever positive crumbs you could find and letting them be antidote enough to keep you alive in it.

And that is how you are going to get through the next 27 years. First Year, you are going to change schools, jobs, husbands, and homes in search of peace, but it is going to elude you. You’ll spend some years frantically cultivating other opportunities, but you’ll never take them. You won’t know why, not really. You’ll wonder if it’s because you are too cautious or too weak or too scared, and some years those wonderings will tear you up, but near the end, when you finally realize that it’s too late to come up with a different answer to the question of what you are going to be when you grow up, when you find this journal in a garage in the middle of a difficult summer, you’ll understand that you stayed more because of love than fear.

Love is always the reason you stick with hard things. Some part of you, deep down, loves the people you serve and work with, and you aren’t going to walk away from them. Some part of you, even deeper down, loves and can’t give up on the wildly beautiful noble idea of public education and its promise that through it anyone can become anything. Nor can you give up your belief that words can save lives, and that what the world needs most is not your words, but more people who can read everyone’s words and write their own.

I am not a fan of martyrdom, so I’m not going to tell you that you that staying was the right thing because you did it for love, which conquers all. It doesn’t, nor should it require self-sacrifice. But neither am I telling you that you should have walked away. Walking away from love should be a move of last resort.

What I can see so clearly, so consciously now, is that even in your first year the problem was never lack of belief or discipline or caring or even skill, much as you doubted all of those things. They are all your greatest strengths, but what you didn’t know then is that our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses are always two sides of the same coin. Your dedication to people and ideals and your determination to use your gifts in serving them is both the source of your power and the thing that will zap it. It is the push that makes you long to leave the work and the pull that holds you to it. It’s what fuels both your best moments and your worst.

When we love it is sometimes so hard to know where lines are or need to be: between want and need, between supporting and enabling, between our allies and our enemies, between others and ourselves, between right and wrong. I see you crossing back and forth over all of those lines, again and again and again, and I can see that perhaps you didn’t need to leave the path; perhaps you just needed to walk it differently.

I hesitate to even write these words to you, First Year, because they can so quickly be used to keep us from seeing and addressing larger societal and systemic issues that make this work so hard for everyone I know who does it. But what you need to do–what we all need to do, if it can be done–is to figure out what you sensed then:  Learn how and when and why to say “no,” so that you will be better able to say “yes” to the things that will allow you to love better. And the first thing you have to say “yes” to is yourself:  A dead martyr can’t serve anyone.

Some say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I don’t know about that, but I do know that things sometimes work in ways we’d never expect. Who would have ever thought that it would be you, faltering First-Year Teacher Me, with your fake journal scribbled together in brief moments at the beginning of your classes and the middle of cheer practices and the last moments of your too-long days, that would impart such important lessons to Nearing-End-of-Career Me? Certainly neither of us, but I’m glad that you wrote these words down that appeared, somehow, from a box I hadn’t looked in for years. Thanks, Teach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different kind of falling

This house of mine and me, we’re not the stuff of fairy tales. I did not fall in love with her at first sight (or second or third or fourth…), and while I’m hoping we’ll live happily together I don’t think it will be ever after. (But you never know, do you? You really never know. Boy, haven’t I learned that.) Ours is a practical  union, forged by the things each of us needs and can provide the other.

We’ve been together since mid-May. I’m still not all unpacked, and the kids’ rooms were a disaster for a good two months and still aren’t functional. (But they don’t live here, so that doesn’t really matter. Hate to think how much energy I’ve wasted on things that don’t really matter.)

At first, for a lot of reasons having little to do with the new house and everything to do with why I left the old one, I didn’t like her much. Oh, I tried, but some nights I wandered alone around her rooms with “Once in a Lifetime” playing on repeat in my head, feeling like somehow things had gotten completely away from me. Even though I’d made my choices consciously and knowingly, even though I felt, given the things I’d accepted I could not change, that I’d made the right ones, my brain couldn’t stop singing, My God, what have I done?

At first, I thought I would move the things I loved best from the old house into the new, and that would make it feel like home.

It didn’t.

None of them really fit in this new house, which I blamed on the house. But to be honest (which I was having a hard time being with myself), my heart was broken. There was no sexy new romance of any kind (house or otherwise) to keep me from feeling all of its jagged edges, and those reminders of what I once had just made me feel my losses more deeply.

One low day I took down all the art I most associated with Cane and the life we’d had together and put them out in the garage. That felt better, and I began to understand that it wasn’t the new house’s fault that our things didn’t fit within her walls. I began giving previously beloved items away, keeping only those that didn’t carry strong memories of what once was.

I also started bringing out things that had been stored in boxes for years, things from my family. At the same time I was moving, my grandmother died. When I returned from her funeral with items from her home,  I found that they didn’t fill me with sadness, even though they, like those from my old house, might have been fused in my heart and head with loss. Instead, they grounded me in who I was back in the beginning of my life, before I ever had a home of my own. Sometimes they made me sad, too, but it felt like the right kind of sad.

I kept telling myself that I needed to unpack the boxes with practical things, but instead I spent hours arranging sentimental objects and working in the garden, pulling and deadheading and cutting back and planting. Those tasks felt more necessary than finding my extra towels or kitchen gadgets.

As I did those things, I started to feel flickers of affection for the new house. I began to feel her charms, not just tell myself that she has them, and when a trip away went several kinds of wrong and I longed to go home, it was this house, not my earlier one, that I wanted.

Still, it’s been a process. It is a process. We’re a work in progress, the house and me.  When I’m really not feeling it from or for her, I sometimes pick up my camera and wander the rooms and garden looking for things I can love. I zoom in close, so I can truly see them, framing them from different angles in order to find the ones most pleasing. (As my friend Kate recently said to me, “there’s something to be said for cropping.”)

I’m finding that love this time–for the house, for my life in it, for my new, transforming-yet-again self–is not about a sudden falling. There isn’t even anything I could call love yet, but there is gratitude, and it is something that’s growing through the small things I’m collecting and discovering and doing over time:

A bouquet I cut from the hydrangea bush and arranged in a pitcher on the kitchen table.

The way the afternoon light spills across the sofa now that we’ve thinned the shrubs in front of the windows.

My mother’s childhood milk cup placed against the backdrop of a thrift store painting.

Morning birdsong in the weedy part of the yard I haven’t yet tamed (and might not).

A quilt top my great-grandmother pieced and that I spread on the bed in what will be my son’s new room.

The patina of a worn dresser that’s become a potting table in the greenhouse, where I hope to grow flowers and vegetables from seeds next spring.

The more I’ve noticed, the more I’ve realized that the things turning this house into home are those I could take to or create in any place I might live. They are things with the right kind of history. They are the things of and from me, not the architecture that surrounds me–things I can carry with me when I once again find myself starting over. Because some day I will. Isn’t life always the same as it ever was, in more ways than it sometimes feels we can hardly bear knowing?